Happy birthday to Alexis de Tocqueville! A walk in his footsteps 216 years after his birth

Plus the recording of my conversation with Tocqueville's family, an opportunity to continue the conversation, and more!

Gracious readers, this week, we’ll explore:

  • Reflections on Alexis de Tocqueville’s life and legacy on the 216th anniversary of his birth

  • A virtual tour of Alexis de Tocqueville’s historic chateau—exclusively available to subscribers of Civic Renaissance!

  • A recap of our conversation about Alexis de Tocqueville with his family at his historic home in Normandy this past weekend

  • A special invitation to CR patrons to dialogue with Tocqueville’s family in late August

  • What should we learn together? I’d love to hear from you!

Reflections on Alexis de Tocqueville’s life and legacy on his 216th birthday

On July 29th, 1805 in Paris—216 years ago today—Alexis de Tocqueville was born. Here at Civc Renaissance, we care deeply about the way that the wisdom of the past can improve our lives today, and Alexis de Tocqueville is one thinker who has ample insight to offer our current moment.

Tocqueville is best known for his work Democracy in America, arguably the best book on democracy and the best book on America. On his birthday today, I thought it might be worthwhile to reflect on some of the most important insights of his work, insights that are still relevant to us today.

(Also, in the video above, enjoy a behind-the-scenes, virtual tour of Tocqueville’s historic château in Normandy, which his family today still lives in today!)

Tocqueville came to America from France for nine months in 1831, ostensibly to study America’s prison system. His prison research was his official business here. His unofficial business, though, was his personal inquiry into the nature and workings of American democracy. As someone who had lost many family members to the excesses and violence of the democratic French Revolution a generation before him, he was understandably skeptical of democracy.

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Tocqueville, however, believed that democracy—by which he meant not just formal electoral institutions but also the informal egalitarian ethos that characterized American society—would eventually sweep across Europe. He thus saw America as a harbinger of what Europe would eventually become, and he was for this reason very interested in how democracy worked in America.

He published the first volume of his reflections in French in 1835, to immediate praise across France. And in 1841 his Democracy in America was translated into English, where it again received rave reviews—including from John Stuart Mill.

Tocqueville’s most important insights center around his recognition that liberty and democracy depend on more than political institutions. They depends on the everyday decisions, habits, and mores of a society’s citizens.

Take, for example, Tocqueville’s famous observations about civic associations. During his travels, Tocqueville observed something unique about Americans. When they encountered problems, they didn’t wait or depend on the government to resolve them, as Tocqueville noted was typical in England and France. Instead, Americans joined together to fix them themselves.

This tendency to form civic associations, Tocqueville observed, was an important counter balance to the power of political institutions: civic associations kept the government in check. The associations were also themselves “schools of democracy” as some later writers have put it, as they allowed people to learn the habits of compromise, collaboration, and negotiation that are indispensable in a democracy.

Similarly, Tocqueville discusses at length how the manners and habits of individual Americans produce the country’s egalitarian culture. He noted that our manners were less ornate than our aristocratic ancestors across the pond, but at the same time were more benevolent and sincere. He wrote

In aristocracies, the rules of propriety impose the same demeanor on everyone; they make all the members of the same class appear alike in spite of their private inclinations; they adorn and conceal the natural man.

Among a democratic people, manners are neither so tutored or uniform, but they are frequently more sincere. They form, as it were, a light and loosely woven veil through which the real feelings and private opinions of each individual are easily discernible.

Americans were kind to one another because of our shared personhood, not because we owed submissiveness to anyone. A servant knew that he was a servant today, but could be a master tomorrow; there was, after all, nothing fundamentally different between them. They held different roles professionally, but that was only a temporary, mutually agreeable arrangement. Tocqueville noted:

Within the limits of this contract, one is a servant and the other the master; outside, they are two citizens, two men.

In other words, he noted that the ideals of equal human dignity and equality under the law that are enshrined in America’s founding documents are relied by the small decisions individual Americans make as we interact with our fellow citizens each day.

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Of course, Tocqueville also noted the potential downsides to democracy’s tendency to depend on the decisions of the mass of individual Americans. For example, he observed firsthand what he called the “tyranny of the majority” amid the populist support of President Andrew Jackson.

Tocqueville saw the dehumanizing effects of Jackson’s decision to forcibly remove Native Americans from their land—and the way that the public supported him. Tocqueville was horrified by this act of inhumanity. And he recognized that Jackson was able to undertake these injustices only because he had the support of the American people.

He also saw the popularity of slavery among a vocal population of Americans. Tocqueville thought that the institution of slavery was abominable and also the greatest threat to American democracy.

Tocqueville saw that many, many Americans were complicit in both the injustices of slavery and the dispossession of native Americans. Yet America’s citizens are a final buttress against injustice, too. Tocqueville reminds us that being a citizen in a democracy is a serious responsibility—and one we each bear. We are culpable for the decisions we make, and for the decisions we support our leaders in making, too.

Tocqueville’s perceptive and prescient analysis of America and democracy are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them two centuries ago.

I hope you consider taking a moment to refresh your knowledge of Alexis de Tocqueville today, an important thinker whose ideas are so central to the Great Conversation that we care about here at Civic Renaissance. For your reading pleasure, here are a few additional quotes from him that I particularly appreciate, and which you might, too:

“All who aspire to literary excellence in democratic nations ought to frequently refresh themselves at the Springs of ancient literature: there is no more wholesome course for the mind.”

“All the great writers of antiquity belonged to the aristocracy of masters, or at least they saw that aristocracy as established and uncontested before their eyes. Their minds, after having been expanded in several directions, were barred from further progress in this one regard; and the advent of Jesus Christ upon earth was required to teach that all the members of the human race are equal by nature.”

“It isn’t necessary for God himself to speak in order for us to discover the sure signs of his will… I know, without the Creator raising his voice, that the stars in space follow th curves traced by his fingers.”

Do you have a favorite Tocqueville quote or insights? Share it with me by emailing me at ah@alexandraohudson.com or post it in the comments below!

Happy birthday, Tocqueville!

A recap and the video of the conversation on Alexis de Tocqueville with his family at his historic château in Normandy

Thanks to those of you who joined our dialogue live on Saturday from Tocqueville’s historic home in Normandy!

I so much enjoyed speaking with the Tocqueville family, and learned a great deal from Alexis’s nephew Jean-Guillaume and his wife Stephanie about the formative experiences, books, and figures that made Alexis the man he was.

In case you missed it, I’m releasing the full video of this dialogue exclusively to Civic Renaissance subscribers.

Enjoy! Please feel free to write to me directly with your thoughts and insights from our conversation at ah@alexandraohudson.com

A special invitation to CR patrons to dialogue with Tocqueville’s family in late August

If you’re interested in continuing this conversation about Tocqueville with his family—especially if you were unable to make the live conversation this past Saturday—I have a special invitation exclusively for patrons of Civic Renaissance.

Join me and the Tocqueville family in August for a continued conversation about Tocqueville, his home, his life, and what his ideas mean today.

Become a patron now to reserve your spot and to ensure you’re the first to know about the final details of this exciting event!

What should we learn together? I’d love to hear from you!

Here at Civic Renaissance, we care deeply about lifelong learning and continually nurturing the life of the mind.

To that end, I’d like to offer a course—perhaps as early as September—to help us continue to learn and grow in our appreciation and understanding of the ideas and world around us.

  1. The timeless principles of human flourishing. In this course, we’ll explore five historic books on civility you’ve never heard of but are essential to know. This would be a lot of fun for me, since this is the topic of my forthcoming book on civility from St. Martin’s Press.

  2. Five classic books that will change your life. This course would explore five books across intellectual history that have changed my life, and that I think offer a lot of promise to change yours, too.

  3. Seven epic poems you absolutely must to know. What is epic poetry? Why does it matter? Which poems have shaped cultures and people for hundreds of years, and what do they have to say to us today?``````````````````````````````````

    Send me a note at ah@alexandraohudson.com with your thoughts on whether and why these ideas appeal to you—and feel free to send me other ideas!—or vote below!

    What should we learn together?

Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community!

I’m thrilled you are here.

Lexi